€7.8m FAS programme 'a complete waste of space'
A CONTROVERSIAL FAS programme which cost taxpayers €7.8m before it was shut down was of no real benefit, a top-level government report has found.
The expenditure on the FAS Science Challenge included Health Minister Mary Harney's infamous $410 (€299) wash and blowdry at a Florida beauty parlour.
The Department of Enterprise-commissioned report contained some scathing criticism of the programme, which was designed to give Irish graduates the opportunity to train for six months at leading US institutions such as Nasa. It was supposed to open the door to high-level careers in science, engineering and technology.
The content of the report is the latest bombshell to rock the crisis-hit state training agency, which has been mired in spending and procurement controversies. It also raises serious questions over how the programme was allowed to continue for so long.
The report, a copy of which has been obtained by the Irish Independent under the Freedom of Information Act, said there were "no measurable or quantifiable targets or goals set" for any of the projects under the programme. "It is therefore difficult to establish any benefits arising directly from the Science Challenge programme," the report said.
Its authors also found that while the programme may have helped the personal and career development of some participants, there was a significant chance students would have achieved these goals anyway without taking part.
A total €6,645,706 was spent on the programme between 2003 and 2007, with a throughput of 243 participants. This represented an average cost per student of €27,349.
Despite the huge outlay, the programme "did not quantifiably contribute" to goals set by the Government's Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation 2006-2013.
The report found overhead costs were very high, particularly advertising, where €3.3m was spent between 2003 and 2007. More than €600,000 was spent on flights in the same period. Accommodation costs were also high, with €1.1m spent between 2003 and 2007. Around €528,000 of this was spent in 2007 alone.
The report was written by a working group made up of officials from the Department of Enterprise, Forfas, FAS and Science Foundation Ireland.
Although their recommendation to shut down the programme was implemented last year, the full report has not been published until now.
The Science Challenge programme involved link-ups with institutions such as Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Harvard Medical School, the University of Central Florida, NASA and Space Florida.
The working group found no evidence that the programme was independently reviewed.
Instead, the programme was allowed to grow in an ad-hoc manner, with add-ons, adjustments and changes to it as it went along.
The report also said the costs involved were disproportionate when weighed against the throughput of students.
These criticisms are in sharp contrast to the strong support shown for the programme by several leading US academics, including a Nobel prize winner, Professor Ferid Murad from the University of Texas Health Centre.
Prof Murad and others wrote to Tanaiste Mary Coughlan praising FAS for having the "foresight" to establish the programme. They said nine out of every 10 interns who completed it had ended up doing high-quality PhD, Masters or other advanced courses.
However, their support was not enough to stop the programme being cancelled.
The Irish Independent revealed last year how €71,000 was charged to the company credit card of the Science Challenge programme's manager, John Cahill, between 2005 and 2008.
The sum included more than €45,000 spent on accommodation and at least €14,000 on restaurant bills.
Mr Cahill, who has since left FAS, defended the spending last night saying he had never used the credit card for anything outside of his job. He also insisted his expenses were approved by his superiors at all times.